Though it was penned nearly half a century ago in support of a losing candidate, many Americans are still familiar with the phrase, authored by speechwriter, Karl Hess, for presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater, which stated: “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.”
The truth, however, is that the opposite is almost always the case: Extremism – particularly as it has come to be practiced in modern, “libertarian” conservatism – is a very destructive vice. And the dangers posed by this extremism go well beyond the threats posed to civil liberties. One can see evidence of this in the “libertarian” argument that property rights should always trump employee rights, consumer and environmental protections, minority discrimination statutes, and union formation and bargaining rights.
At first read, though, libertarianism and the case for a minimal state have a great deal of persuasive appeal and clarity. Progressive and liberal views can seem messy and complicated in comparison.
Libertarians possess a simple rule to be applied in all circumstances: “Everyone has the right to carry on his or her own affairs as long as one does not violate others’ similar rights.”
This point of view means that government’s only role is securing these individual rights. Property rights are absolute and coercion is not permitted – even if it could help to achieve another good end, such as curbing racial discrimination. Further, taxation is “theft.” Contracts between consenting adults rule.
In every legislative, judicial, and executive situation, one basic rule governs: use state power to protect or advance property rights.
So, in this drama, there is a clear good and bad option.
But, of course, the real world is messier than such a simplistic ideology implies. Most political and policy controversies entail trade-offs and wrestling with the fact that both sides can be right about something.
We need to be exploring more inventive and inclusive choices, not polarizing or over-simplifying the issues.
This is not to fall into relativism and imply one choice is good as the next.
It is to claim the following:
Property rights do not “pre-exist”: they are conventions that are grounded by state actions to make and enforce contracts and ownership.
Individual freedom to shape one’s life can be constrained not only by an over-stepping, coercive state, but also by limits imposed by private economic power and social institutions that give privileged access to political influence, personal security, economic opportunity, and criminal justice.
We must “remember the little people” – children. Kids are not equipped to look after themselves. They have little control over their choice of parents and vulnerability to poverty and its negative effects. And as economist Nancy Folbre puts it: “You can’t create human capital without creating and nurturing, as well as educating little humans.”
Libertarians also confuse the issues of consent. Not all obligations are contractual. (Think about sons’ and daughters’ duties to their parents or what we owe our country.) And we will never obtain total and willing consent to governmental actions. This is why democracy and the Bill of Rights and the US Constitution matter.
Taxation cannot be replaced by charity, because of severe free rider problems. This is why fairness in ability to pay and the actual benefits provided are so important to citizenry.
This not to say that government can or should do it all. To the contrary, individual freedom and liberty are absolutely essential components of the American experiment. Often, however, freedom and liberty are dependent upon government intervention to limit the excesses of private wealth and power. At some point, we need thoughtful, right-sized government, not just the arbitrarily limited government urged by modern “extremist” conservatives. Let’s hope that, in the long run, these forces meet with as much success as their hero did in 1964.
William Schweke is a Senior Fellow at CFED  in their Durham, NC office.